In the first game between the Cap Tigers, from west-suburban Norridge, and the Braves, from the Chicago neighborhood of south Andersonville, emotions ran high. The Cap Tigers were undefeated in the Riis Park Weekend Semi-Pro League, and they expected to remain that way. Their lineup was loaded with big, ham-handed sluggers. The heart of their order could match up in size with any team from the majors; overall, they’re bigger than the White Sox. They had a hard-throwing pitcher on the mound with an intimidating fastball. They had the finest practice facilities and the best equipment that money could buy.
And who where they playing? The Braves had ten losses, their average height was five foot six, and their top pitcher, though crafty, didn’t have the hard stuff. They’re so poor they couldn’t afford to buy numbers to put on the backs of their jerseys. Their batting helmets were so old they looked like used bowling balls. One of their players swung a lead pipe instead of a bat. It was inconceivable to the Cap Tigers, an all-white team from the suburbs used to getting their own way, that in the last game of the season, a game they saw as a tune-up for the playoffs, they could be beaten by a band of little Spanish guys–the smallest and youngest team in the league–from the city. But that was exactly what happened.
The Cap Tigers didn’t take the loss well. They were upset. Their perfect record had a blemish on it. As they left the field, one of their players yelled across the diamond, “You little bastards, you’re just a bunch of Julios!” “Julios?” the Braves asked themselves. “Julios? What the hell do they mean, ‘Julios’?” But they knew.
By winning this game, the Braves had qualified for the playoffs–they were 35 and 10–and they’d see the Cap Tigers again in another week, in the league championship series. A week to get ready. Another week to be Julios.
The Braves discussed various strategies. “Maybe we should just call each other Julio during the game,” suggested Juan, a Mexican. At five foot three he’s the smallest of the Braves, a couple of inches taller than Eddie Gaedel, the midget who played one game for Bill Veeck back in the 50s. The most diminutive player on a team of little guys, Juan is nicknamed Willow, after the title character in the movie about a magical heroic dwarf. He’s also the designated hitter.
“We could use it in our chatter,” Juan said. “Like ‘Nice play, Julio,’ ‘Go get ’em, Julio,’ ‘Stick it in his ear, Julio,’ like that.” “No,” said Arturo, the Mexican catcher, also known as the Big Burrito. “We should write ‘Julios’ on the back of our jerseys.” Louie, a Dominican called Quesadilla because “he’s full of stuff and covered in cheese,” one of the best hitters on the team, was in favor of a brawl. The second-smallest player, Nipple, didn’t say anything–as usual–but he isn’t Spanish. An Assyrian, he just looked Spanish to the Cap Tigers.
John, the team’s Greek manager, recommended that they “just play ball.” For once he was backed up by the two most respected members of the team, the two oldest, the star players: Armando, aka Commando, the left fielder from Cuba, and Lee the pitcher, who counsels drug abusers for a living and is called Gibby because he looks like Bob Gibson. These two insisted that there be no showboating or name-calling from the Braves, or they would personally beat them over the heads. Gibby once hit a 500-foot home run with the 36-ounce lead pipe he was using for a bat. The other Braves agreed to their conditions.
The playoffs were scheduled for three consecutive days: Saturday and Sunday, August 17 and 18, and Monday the 19th if necessary. Best two out of three wins the championship. The winning team gets its $500 league fee returned. That’s the only prize.
“The money definitely helps,” Willow said. “But that isn’t the reason we play. Some of the guys on the team have quit jobs because they interfered with baseball. We’d rather play than work. Most of the team has been together for four years, since we were 15, 16 years old, and I can see us being together for at least another four. I think we all feel that baseball is better than life.”
Willow hit a three-run homer in Saturday’s game, and Tony, the quiet one, the Braves’ second starter, pitched masterfully, giving up only one earned run. The final was Braves 9, Cap Tigers 4. The Cap Tigers were frustrated by the running Braves, but there weren’t any arguments, only muttered threats. One of the Cap Tigers asked Ben, the Irish second baseman and the only white on the Braves, if he felt funny about being on the team. Ben didn’t know what he meant. He asked his teammates if they thought that the other player was making fun of him. “Yeah,” they responded, “they’re calling you McJulio.” The Cap Tigers catcher mumbled something about “n . . . s” behind the back of Angola, the Belizean first baseman, while he was at the plate. Angola said, “What?” The catcher replied, “Nothing. Let’s play ball.” Angola rapped a triple.
The Braves didn’t want to go to a third game. They didn’t want to lose to the big white boys. “These guys have had everything handed to them, man, they always had the silver spoon in their mouth. Let’s jam that spoon down their throats.” But Saturday night was a nervous night. The Cap Tigers hadn’t lost even one game to anyone else all year, from May to August, much less losing three straight, and the Braves were afraid that if they lost the second game of the series the spell would be broken and they wouldn’t find the winning formula again.
They all spent Saturday night in different pursuits. Quesadilla visited with his girlfriend and had a couple of beers. Ben the white guy spent some time with his Mexican girlfriend and came to a decision. Gibby talked to a drug addict. Willow went straight home from his job at the bookstore, vowing to have the same breakfast on Sunday that he’d had on Saturday–two cups of coffee and a grapefruit with ten sugars on it. “This Julio comes to play,” he told himself Saturday night.
The game was scheduled early, for 10:30 AM. The sky was overcast, threatening rain carried by a high wind. Everybody arrived on time. About 30 spectators were on hand–most had driven over from Norridge with the Cap Tigers. Two umpires would work the game. They were older men, both black. One worked the plate, the other roved the infield. They knew they’d have some tough calls to make.
The Cap Tigers powered their way to two runs off Gibby in the top of the first. But in the bottom of the first, with the Cap Tigers pitcher giving up three walks and battling wildness, the Braves ran four runners across home. The plate umpire, Blue, expanded the strike zone, and Willow was the third out on a called strike, a pitch low and outside. The Braves kept quiet.
The teams traded runs through the third and fourth. The Cap Tigers catcher was injured on a play at the plate. Quesadilla yelled, “That’s what you get . . . ” and was about to say more when Commando pulled him away. “Those Dominicans,” Willow observed. “They’re always talking.” The catcher, limping, shook it off and stayed in the game.
The sun broke through in the top of the fifth, and on the first play, so did the frustrations of the Cap Tigers. When their hitter was called out on a bang-bang play at first base, the bench exploded. Players ran out to argue, girlfriends screamed insults from behind the fence. The Cap Tigers manager snatched the umpire’s cap, flinging it into right field. “You’re out of here,” the umpire yelled. Pigpen, the Braves’ Puerto Rican right fielder, retrieved the cap. A Cap Tigers player was thrown out of the game. Anarchy threatened, whining prevailed. Big guys stomped the ground. No one would be able to stop a major fight. There were no security guards. Parents led their children away from the field. The Cap Tigers manager yelled at the umpire from the sidelines, “You look like Stevie Wonder with a beard.” “Get him out of here, Blue,” the ump said, walking away. The other umpire started in the manager’s direction. “OK,” the manager said, “I’m going.” He took a seat on the hill behind the backstop. The game resumed.
Gibby had control problems. “I’m just missing,” he told a spectator. “An inch here, two inches there.” “Keep the ball moving,” the spectator replied. “Just keep hitting your spots and they’ll overswing.” Gibby shook his head in wonder: “Can you imagine a pitcher in the major leagues taking advice from a fan during the game? That’s what’s great about semipro ball. And he’s right, too,” he added.
Gibby had given up five runs through the seventh but settled down in the eighth, and with the Cap Tigers hitters swinging hard at high outside pitches, set them down one-two-three. The Braves added a run in their half and held a 9-to-5 lead going into the ninth. “Nine’s a charm,” said John the manager, clapping it up. “Let’s go, Julios,” yelled Willow, as he positioned the outfield. Tony, the quiet one, sang the first line of “We Are the Champions” over and over, softly, to himself, like a chant. “It’s the only line I know,” he said.
The Cap Tigers had the big heart of their order up, but couldn’t power anything by the Braves outfielders. Still, they managed to put two runners on. With two on and two out, the Cap Tigers catcher came up. Injured and despised, he swung at two pitches wide of the strike zone. “I can feel it,” said Willow. “He’s the last out.” The catcher heard him, looked over, but said nothing. He took the next two pitches. The next one came in, a tightly wrapped curve that broke right over the plate, and he powered it to left field–a shot, his best hit of the day. The runners lumbered toward home, the catcher limped toward first, while Commando glided back and over to the line, and high up in the air caught the ball, ending the game. The Braves were the champions of the Riis Park league. They would probably be able to put numbers on their jerseys now.
After a subdued celebration on the field and a handshaking ceremony with a silent Cap Tigers team, all of the Julios headed back to their neighborhood, around Foster and Ashland, for a victory barbecue. In this area there’s a narrow choice in occupation for teenage males and young adults. Either you play competitive sports or you join a gang.
The Braves had brought a championship to Chicago. Gibby got the grill started. After pitching nine tough innings, he cooked skirt steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, and tortillas. At 27 he is several years older than the next-oldest team member, and he has athletic glory in his past. He played baseball at Chicago State, and basketball with Mark Aguirre at Westinghouse. “I love the game,” Gibby said. “That’s it. But this one felt good. All that Julio stuff from the other team, that got us mad–hey, don’t take that one,” he cautioned the Big Burrito, who was about to take a steak off the grill. “It’s not done yet.” “I don’t care,” the Big Burrito answered.
Ben, the white guy, made a sudden announcement. “Me and Claudia are getting married.” The others toasted them with orange juice and beer. “A Mexican-Irish wedding, you got to get married on the field,” shouted one. “Yeah, you can’t get her a bigger diamond anywhere.” Tony continued to rehearse “We Are the Champions.” And Juan–Willow–said to no one in particular, “Sometimes baseball really is better than life.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jeffrey Felshman.